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The Boy and the Darkness

Sergei Lukjanenko

Part 1. The Winged.

Chapter 3. The Elders' Club.

The city where Lan lived stunned me.

For some reason I had been certain that the city would be hidden underground; that it would consist of damp, narrow caves with masked entrances, that would be guarded by silent, heavy-set men with enormous swords. But, having walked no more than an hour, we came out to an ordinary town, spread out over the hills and totally unconcealed. Well, all right, it was nighttime - the absurdly long local night. And the enemy might not have the glasses that let one see in the darkness. But what would one do in daytime? Or do the creatures made of blackness not come out in the daytime - are they nocturnal? But then they should be able to see in the dark..

None of it fitted together. We walked as far as the outskirts without meeting anyone, and it was only here that two strong lads approached us. One had a crossbow slung over his shoulder; the other wore a long knife at his belt. The clothes they wore were fairly ordinary - trousers and coats, nothing like Lan's strange suit-wing-shelter. The lads examined me with curiosity, sniffed, then stared at Lan; who quickly lowered his gaze, shuffled his feet and edged close to me.

- Hi, - said the guy with the crossbow; somehow thoughtfully, as though deciding whether to say anything at all.

- Hello, Shoki, - said Lan quickly. - How are things in the city?

- The city is fine. Where is your Elder?

- We were caught, - Lan hurriedly began, stumbling over his words. - We fought really hard, but they caught us, and then dragged us to the tower, and Kert told me to get help and distracted the Flying himself..

- Why not the other way round, Lan? Why was it not you that distracted them, so that Kert could fly for help?

- He flew badly! - shouted Lan desperately. - You know him, he's already heavy! Kert understood that there was no way he could make it back, so he ordered me..

- I warned Kert that he'll get stuck in a mess with this snot-nose, - the lad with the knife broke into the conversation. - What tower did you abandon him in?

- I didn't!

- Where is Kert?

- In the Round tower on the Eastern ridge. The place where..

- I know. It's too late to rescue him now - Kert is long since with them. And what is this idiot that you've brought here?

This is where I snapped. We have lots of twits like these two lads in the older classes. And if you don't push them off immediately, it only gets worse.

- Whoah, reign in your tongue, wagon-train! - I said. - And stop riding over Lan! You're trying to think too much, it's bad for you!

The lads froze. Then Shoki walked up to me and hissed:

- Who is your Elder, lad? And how much does he value you? Perhaps I could scrape together enough for the fine, eh?

- He's from another city, - interrupted Lan unexpectedly. - All his lot died, I promised him protection!

- If you promised - we shan't kill him, - agreed Shoki readily. - I really don't see why we need him, though. This boy managed to not only lose his Elder, but his weapon and Wing too, is that not so?

- He was Elder in his pair himself, - said Lan quietly. And here the two lads were surprised for real. The one I didn't know the name of asked me dazedly:

- Lan isn't lying? Confirm!

It seemed no-one was expecting a lie from me. Fair enough.

- Lan is right. I was Elder and was left alone.

The lads drooped visibly, and I decided to make my victory firm:

- As for the weapon and Wing.. had you been in my place, you would have lost your head as well, make no mistake.

They didn't argue. And made no attempt to catch me in a lie. Only Shoki asked - without any hint of suspicion, clearly out of curiosity:

- What city are you from, Elder that asks for protection?

I surprised myself by lying:

- From Moscow.

Moscow was duly accepted. Any other city would have worked too, I think. Shoki nodded and declared:

- I think I've heard of it.. Will you come to the Club in the evening?

I nodded, since that was clearly expected of me. And followed Lan, who had already been giving me let's-slink-off-now stares for a minute or two. But when we'd got maybe five metres away, Shoki shouted to me once more:

- Hey, Elder from another town!

Turning around I stared at him.

- Are you intending to work with Lan or something?

I wasn't intending anything at all yet, and was stuck for an answer. Shoki added

- I don't recommend it. He's a coward. You'll perish like Kert. See you this evening!

We walked on. Lan was silent; I didn't know what to say either. Anyway, there were sights enough to occupy me, and I forgot the conversation almost immediately - I was gaping around.

When I said that the town was perfectly ordinary, I, of course, did not mean like my own. This town was perfectly ordinary for a world just like this, a fairytale world. It had cobble pavements and stone houses with turrets that looked like little castles, and several real castles - in the distance, we weren't walking towards them. Only there weren't any people.

- There's no-one around, - I said to myself.

- It's late; while we were talking with the boys, the clock struck eight, - hurriedly explained Lan. - Some people are in clubs, some in the cathedral, some at their homes. People don't like wandering about in the evenings here.

It took a few seconds for the meaning of that to hit me.

- Eight? In the evening?

- Yes. We met in the morning, then you slept, then we took a long time to get here.. Is something wrong?

Lan was fussing and looking worried, but I wasn't paying attention to him now. I finally admitted to myself something I had already understood a while ago. There was no day here. Or if there was, it was no different from night.

And that meant that the kitten would not be able to return me home. And would he even have the strength to fly around the world, with darkness everywhere?

- Lan, I need True light, - I said quietly.

- We're almost there, - said Lan quickly. - We'll turn on the light, take off our glasses..

He had no idea about True Light. It's not something you can turn on.

- Lan, Lan..- I muttered. - If you only knew what a mess I'd got into..

- We're here, - said Lan. He walked up to a two-floor house with a tall, round turret and opened the wooden door. The door looked like that other, Hidden, one that the Kitten and I came here through, and I got even more homesick.

- Give me your hand, - said Lan, and I noticed his voice shaking. - Let the door remember you.. even if you change your mind.

I didn't understand, but gave him my hand anyway. Lan touched my palm to the bronze handle, put his hand over it. And said quietly:

- This is a friend. He may always enter.

- Cool locks you've got here, - I said after we'd come inside and shut the door.

- Not everyone has them - only us Winged, - said Lan absent-mindedly. He clapped his hands, and several glass balls around the room glowed with a bright, white light. They can't have been electric - no wires - but it was cool anyway. I took off my glasses; Lan pulled off his suit and looked at me thoughtfully.

- Listen, Danny, I'd give you Kert's clothes, since you'll be Elder, and he won't need them any more, but he's much bigger than you.. Maybe you'll use mine for now?

- All right, - I agreed, peering around. The room that we'd walked into from the street was huge. It probably took up the entire first floor on its own and looked very strange. The round table in the centre, the few soft armchairs surrounding it, those were all normal. But along the walls! It was as though furniture had been gathered from all sorts of different places and scattered around its perimeter. Bookcases and a soft couch with a coffee table, a rug heaped with pillows, a rough wooden table with flasks and beakers and above them, in a little case, a heap of assorted chemicals. Part of the wall was covered in various steel weapons, knives, swords, crossbows and some totally incomprehensible items, some sort of musical instrument like a small piano - ah, I remember, a clavichord, I think. A huge aquarium full of bright fish, paintings on the wall and, underneath them, an easel covered over by cloth...

I didn't have time to examine the pictures. Lan walked up to me, carrying clothes. Dark, bleak clothes - a grey suit of the sort that young violinist prodigies perform in. A white shirt and a dark blue tie.

- Luxurious room, - I said honestly.

Lan smiled proudly and stretched the clothes out toward me.

- Is there nothing else? - I asked uncertainly.

- You're going to the club. This is what's done...

- I see. Well, it's not so strict with us, - I began, stalling. But Lan didn't pay this any particular attention. He shuffled his feet, opened his mouth, but what he then said was clearly not what he'd been about to:

- The bathroom is over there on the second floor next to the bedrooms. You can pick any room, Kert's or mine - it doesn't matter.

- And your parents won't be against it? - I asked just in case.

Lan stared:

- Parents? I am Winged, and... and moreover, it's been long since my Dad's disappeared and my mum rarely visits.

- I'd better be off then, - I worried, feeling my cover slip. And started towards the stairs, to the first floor.

- Danny, - Lan called me. Sharply, as though he'd only suddenly gathered up enough courage to.

- What?

- I'm not trying to push into being a pair with you, whatever you may think. If you would like to choose a different partner, I'll help you. But everything Shoki said was lies. Ignore them. I'm not a coward. And I did not abandon Kert.

What could I say? I understood even less of all their relationships than I understood of the ranks of the Kuwait army. But Lan was standing there and looking at me with such an expression as though his entire fate depended on my words. There was no way I could tell him I was no Elder and, moreover, not a Winged.

- Younger, find me something to chew, eh? - I asked. And Lan nodded, and his face shone.

I found the bathroom without difficulty. I clapped my hands, which made the light come on, and gave a whistle.

Well, well. A whole little swimming pool, and two huge pipes with taps: cold and hot.

I turned the water right up, undressed, which didn't take me very long in my present condition, and climbed into the hot water. Cool! This was much better than running about across mountains wearing nothing but underpants and hiding from incomprehensible monsters. Now how could I fish from Lan all the information I needed and in such a way that he wouldn't suspect anything?

I relaxed for a long time, then realised that I was about to fall asleep, dried myself with the first towel I came across and put on the "club" costume. It was alright, except the top was a bit tight around my shoulders and I couldn't work out how to tie the tie. Coming back down, I discovered that Lan had made a small mountain of sandwiches with meat, and had placed a bottle of orange coloured juice in the middle of the table.

Totally cool. Only, I didn't actually get to eat because Lan quickly said:

- Danny, you're already late for the Club. It is 5 to 9.

He too was wearing a suit, only white and without any kind of tie. Catching my glance, Lan explained:

- I'm going to a club too. It would be impolite not to come after a sortie. What, you can't do your tie?

He took from me this most stupid part of the wardrobe, plopped into an armchair, put the tie over hs knee and started to tie it.

- Kert couldn't do his tie up either. Well, he could but he didn't like to. He always made me do it.

I found this "made me" rather unpleasant.

- You were friends with him?

- Us? Well, yes, I guess. We were, after all, partners...

I decided not to interrogate further. Lan finished with the tie, helped me tighten it around my neck, examined me critically and nodded:

- It'll do. It looks funny, of course, but that's because you're way too young for an Elder...

Lan trailed off and suddenly looked up into my eyes. In a very serious voice he asked:

- Danny, were you really Elder?

It was too late to take my words back.

- Of course. Why are you asking?

Lan relaxed:

- Our lot kill for such a lie. So... I got a little scared.

Great. Suddenly I realised that despite the glowing balls and hot water, nevertheless it was the Middle Ages around me.

- Our lot aren't this strict, - I made myself smile. - They give one a clip round the ear sometimes.

- No, only traitors are hung here - Lan misunderstood me. - Liars die by the sword. - He took his gaze away but added:

- And cowards too.

- And you could be declared a coward? - I asked. Lan shuddered:

- You accepted me as a partner. Therefore you vouched for me not being a coward.

So that was it. I thought a little and said:

- And I was able to vouch for you because you vouched for me, promising me protection. Is that right?

- That's right...

- Great. Vicious circle.

Lan was a pitiful sight. I couldn't bear it, and asked:

- Won't we be late?

- Wild wing! - incomprehensibly swore Lan. - Let's run!

And we ran from the house. As we ran, Lan explained to me how to get back from the Club. At first I didn't understand why he bothered and asked:

- You're coming to the Club too, so we'll be walking back together...

- I'm going to ours, for the Younger - explained Lan, slightly surprised. - A strange city, Moscow. Everything is different there.

- That's true, - I admitted, although I'd honestly never been to Moscow.

- Would you like me to wait for you by the exit? - Lan suggested. - I could leave early...

- It's alright, I'll sort myself out - I shrugged him off. I was liking what was happening less and less. They had some sort of army setup or perhaps even prison setup, and in addition to everything this eternal darkness and completely empty streets. Aagh!

- Here's your Club - Lan pointed at an enormous, beautiful house on the opposite side of the street. There was a high turret over the house, which made it look like an eastern mosque.

- Ours is further on. Two blocks over and left. May I go?

- Go.

- You definitely don't want me to wait for you?

- Lan, stop it! - I hollered. And Lan immediately stopped hanging on me, squeezed my hand uncertainly and ran along the street. He ran quickly. He was probably really late for his Club.

Before entering the building, I took off my glasses and stood a while, peering into the darkness. Not a single building showed even a ray of light. The silhouettes of houses could be sensed by some sort of sixth sense rather than vision but still I stood a while, searching the sky for a glowing dot... the Sun Kitten. But I saw nothing. Then I took a deep breath and pushed open the door of the club.

Everything in this place turned out to be exactly the way I expected to see it. A large room with tables, armchairs, a bar like in a pub. There were thirty-odd people there and all young, perhaps fifteen to twenty years old. All the conversations stopped when I appeared and all gazes were directed towards me.

I paused, and walked up to the bar. Wondered briefly whether one had to pay here. A lad aged perhaps seventeen stood behind the bar, looking bored of the company of bottle and jugs. He was very pale and thin, as appeared to be the local custom.

- Wine? - He gave a friendly smile.

All I needed now was to get drunk. I shook my head.

- Juice.

- Is that all? What kind?

- Any.

Shrugging, he poured me an enormous glass of bright yellow liquid. Then, as though something suddenly clicked, exclaimed:

- Hold on! You're the new Elder, who'd come with the Younger Lan!

- Yes, - I agreed warily. I smelt a rat.

- Great. - The lad started pulling off his colourful apron. - That means you're taking my place. That's the custom here. Don't forget to wash the floors after everyone's left and...

I looked into the room. Everyone was clearly enjoying the spectacle.

- Joker, - I said with my nicest smile, and walked away from the bar. The lad silently put his apron back on, which meant I'd done everything right.

- Danny!

Turning towards the voice I saw Shoki, sitting next to the fireplace with two others. They all looked around twenty, which was the oldest age of those present, and they all looked really thin. One was smoking a long cigarette and I smelt the smoke, a strange, sweet smell, unlike tobacco.

Somehow they'd found out my name...

- Sit with us! - continued Shoki. There was no point refusing and I sat on an empty chair at their table, opposite Shoki.

- How d'you like our Club?

I shrugged.

- And our town?

I smiled.

Shoki shook his head:

- Yes, one can't exactly call you talkative. Never mind Danny, I'll try and make sure you're not bullied. You're too small.. you look too small.. that's the problem.

It would have been difficult to stay silent to that, and I said:

- I know. That's alright, that will pass.

- Unfortunately true, - sighed Shoki. - You're not stupid Danny, you understand the heart of it. I've already got used to the idea that I at most have half a year left to fly. G'nat and Alk - he looked at his neighbours - understand that too. Even though they're practically crawling out of their skins to try to not gain weight. But a lot of people are peeved at your appearance. You're already Elder, you see, and you'll be flying for many years yet. And their time is coming to an end, and there is nothing they can do about it.

I finally understood the problem. The Wings could not lift an adult, which was why it was only children and teenagers flew, and fought the things made of darkness.

It also became clear why the Elders treated the Younger so. Their time was coming to an end, but they still wanted to carry on having Wings. The only mystery left was what adults did in this world.

- Danny.

I looked at Shoki.

- You made Lan your partner?

- Yes.

- Don't make a mistake, Danny. It is not for me to explain to you what a partner is. Lan is, in the first instance, a coward. Don't get mad. I understand how he helped you when you were left without Wing, without weapon, without home. But he had his own gain in this, understand?

I took a gulp of juice from my glass. It was very sour, lemon perhaps. It made my teeth clench.

- Secondly, Lan is a poor fighter. He's an excellent flyer, and he can run away from any of the Flying, but it is not to run away that we put on Wings.

I continued my self-torture session, sipping my juice.

- And thirdly, - continued Shoki cruelly, - Lan and you are of the same age. More or less of the same age. In two or three years time, he will be Elder, assuming that you don't get killed and we can't then deal with him as he deserves. You will have to find a new partner. Why do you need these problems? I will find you a good lad who's only just tried on his first Wing. And I will make sure that you don't get given difficult assignments until your partner becomes stronger. How does that sound?

I sipped my juice in silence.

- In addition, Danny, Lan will not be polite and obedient for long. Right now he's happy just that he's safe from the Flying and from our punishment. In a couple of days he will decide that there is no particular reason to obey the orders of someone his own age. You will have to either beat the stupidity out of him, as Kert did, or become resigned to having an insubordinate partner. It seems to me that you don't want either of those.

Shoki was not lying. I felt this. He spoke only that which he believed and only because, for some reason, he liked me. And his words were worth thinking about. I had fewer and fewer chances of returning home remaining, and if I were to have to live here.. for some time.. then it was worth it listening to good advice.

Lan, of course, saved me. But I saved him also. And at first he was about to kill me.

And if, right now, I chose for myself a different partner, then..

- I am very sorry, Shoki, - I said, looking straight into his eyes.

He nodded.

- That's what I thought. But I had to warn you. I like you, Danny. Were you Younger, I would have taken you as my partner.

I didn't have time to respond to this unexpected compliment because I felt a tap on my shoulder. Not a polite tap, rather, forceful.

Behind me stood the lad that had met us on the city outskirts, together with Shoki. His gaze was so clouded that it was immediately obvious: it was not juice he was drinking.

- You are a very young Elder, Danny, - he said, with a sour smile.

Everything around instantly went silent. I stared at the lad, at his tight, stretched suit top. He was clearly trying to look smaller than he really was. And said:

- And you are a very grown up Elder.

He made a face. I'd clearly hit him in a sore spot.

- Are you certain that you can stand for yourself, Elder Danny?

- Yes.

I started shivering. Shivering inside, thankfully, invisible to the others.

- Would you risk laying me out?

- Right now? - I asked quietly.

- Why not?

When I started going to aikido classes, they taught us this punch, outside the course, right at the start, just in case some strange uncle tries to get acquainted with us in a dark alley. Without standing up, I punched.

The lad folded in half, holding his crotch. I jumped out from behind the table, tipping over the glass with the sour juice, and froze. My opponent slowly straightened up and hissed:

- I'll finish you...

What fool ever strikes with their full strength, especially if their opponent knows aikido? I dodged, catching his arm, and slightly correcting his flight. He made a beautiful arc over the table, and his head stuck between the bars of the iron fireguard.

People only stand up after such falls in Hong Kong movies. The lad had clearly never seen any and wasn't even trying to get up. The fire in the fireplace was hot and his hair was beginning to crackle gently.

- He ought to be pulled away before he catches fire, - I said, sitting back down. There was still a grave silence. Shoki picked up the glass with the remains of his wine and offered it to me. I drank without pause. The wine turned out to be sour and weak, like champagne.

- He's yours now, - Shoki said unhurriedly. - Will you allow us to pull him clear?

I nodded. My fear slowly passed.

- G'nat, - Shoki nodded towards his neighbour. - Save this idiot. He's got a sortie tomorrow.

G'nat unhurriedly pulled "this idiot" from the fireplace and laid him down in a corner.

- I think you've removed part of your problems, - said Shoki with an encouraging note in his voice. - It is a pity you're not Younger.

- That's how it is, - I said honestly. - It's time I went, Shoki. My Younger is waiting for me.

Shoki nodded silently, and without bidding anyone else goodbye, I left the Club of the Elders.

Next chapter

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